This resource explores connections among executive functioning (EF) and counting and provides tips for early childhood educators to support EF while engaging in counting.
by Jane Hutchison & Deborah Phillips
EF and Counting Connections
In the overview module, we discuss the important relationships between executive functioning (EF) skills and early math learning in general (see Overview of Executive Functioning and Math). Here we discuss how early executive function capacities come into play during counting in particular. Although counting may seem relatively simple from an experienced counter’s point of view, learning how to count is surprisingly complex and executive function abilities likely play a key role in this process.
The role of EF in learning how to count becomes clear when we think about three core counting principles that children must master in order to become efficient counters: one-to-one correspondence, the number word sequence, and cardinality. Mastering each of these core counting principles can involve a good deal of executive functioning:
- One-to-one correspondence: In order for children to understand that only one number word from the counting sequence applies to each object being counted, they must inhibit counting the same object more than once. This requires the use of inhibitory control skills. They must also use their working memory skills to keep track of which objects still need to be counted.
- Number word sequence: children must rely on their working memory skills in order to remember the last number they counted in addition to remembering the number that comes next in the number sequence.
- Cardinality: children must use their working memory skills to hold the last number they counted in mind when asked to indicate the quantity of the set.
When learning how to count, not only are children acquiring core numerical principles but early EF skills as well. Therefore, early childhood educators should think of counting activities as opportunities to boost the development of both basic numeracy and EF.
Incorporating EF Support into Counting: Tips for Early Childhood Educators
Below we offer some tips for how early childhood educators can incorporate more explicit EF support into everyday counting activities.
Working Memory: Students practice WM skills when they are required to hold and/or manipulate multiple pieces of information in mind over short periods of time in order to arrive at the correct answer. Teachers can support WM during counting activities in many different ways. For example:
- Teachers can ask children for the number just before or just after a specific number, “What number comes just before nine? How about just after nine?” This requires holding the initial number in mind while considering which number comes before or next.
- Teachers may ask questions that require children to think about cardinality and the ordered count sequence during counting activities. For example, after counting a set of objects, the teacher may ask “How many do you have altogether?” To answer this question, children have to remember the last number they just counted and use it to represent the quantity of the set.
Inhibitory Control: Students practice inhibitory control skills when they engage in activities that require them to wait their turn and/or think before they act. Teachers can encourage inhibitory control while counting by engaging their students in turn taking. For example:
- The teacher may say “you count one block and I’ll count the next.” The child and teacher would then continue alternating who counts until they count all of the objects. In this example, children must inhibit their desire to continue counting when it is not their turn to count.
- Board games that involve both counting and turn-taking require inhibitory control skills. Chutes and Ladders and similar games that require children to use a spinner or dice with numbers (or sets of objects) are excellent group activities to support these skills.
Cognitive Flexibility: Teachers can support cognitive flexibility during counting by encouraging students to make comparisons, shift perspectives and to approach the counting activity in different ways. For example:
- To promote cognitive flexibility when counting collections of objects, teachers can encourage their students to sort the objects based on different dimensions of the object. For example, when counting, the teacher may suggest that the children sort the objects first by color and then by shape. The teacher can then ask similar questions to above, “Was it easier to sort by color or shape?” “Did it make any difference in the total number of objects?” Then the children can verify their answer by counting the objects again.
Planning and Organization: Teachers can encourage planning and organization skills while counting by asking children to show how they counted. These activities also promote the use of math language for communication as well as thinking about one’s own strategies (metacognition). For example:
- Teachers can ask children how many objects are in a set and then follow up by asking them, “Can you show me how you know?” This encourages children to think about how they counted and may encourage planning in future counting activities. It is important to make sure that the counting activity is engaging. Examples include how many blocks used to make a tower, how many tangram pieces in a picture, or how many children needed to play a game.
- The same approach may be used with sorting objects. The teacher may ask children to explain how they sorted and counted the objects.